Sleep-Deprived Teens are at Increased Risk of Substance Use
Oversleeping and feeling sleep-deprived are practically synonymous with being a teenager. The natural sleep cycle of adolescents, whose brains are undergoing considerable growth and development, is determined in part by the timing of the secretion of sleep-inducing brain chemicals, which tends to occur from approximately 11pm to 8am. While the sleep deficits seen in young people may be accounted for in part by even later than natural bedtimes due to over-packed after-school schedules and staying up into the early morning hours to study, watch TV, or use social media, it appears that premature waking may contribute to the problem as well.
Recent research has shined a light on the potential adverse cognitive and health effects of disrupting the natural sleep cycle of teens, including an increased risk of obesity, depression, automobile accidents, and poor academic performance. These findings have led a growing number of school districts to experiment with delayed start times and the American Academy of Pediatrics to formally recommend that middle and high schools begin the school day at a time that allows students to receive at least 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night.
Now, an emerging body of research is providing yet another reason to ensure that teens get enough sleep: the significant link between sleep patterns during middle and high school and the risk of substance use. CASAColumbia’s analysis of national data for its study, Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem, found that high school students who reported getting less than 8 hours of sleep per night were significantly more likely than those who slept 8 hours or more to be current users of tobacco (22% vs. 15%), alcohol (46% vs. 34%), and marijuana (23% vs. 17%) and lifetime users of illicit drugs (16% vs. 11%). While it has been known for some time that tobacco, alcohol and other drug use can impede healthy sleep patterns, newer research indicates that the relationship between sleep loss and substance use appears to be bi-directional. That is, the disruption of the natural sleep cycle can significantly increase the risk of substance use, in part by interfering with brain functions that regulate the experience of reward, emotions and impulsivity. Poor regulation in these functions is strongly associated with a teen's risk for tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use.
This research shows that encouraging and facilitating good sleep habits in young people may not only improve adolescent health and academic performance, but also may be another important component of helping to prevent youth substance use. To that end, parents should try to help their children make wise after school and pre-bedtime scheduling choices, schools should consider scheduling classes in a way that does not disrupt students’ natural sleep cycle, and health professionals who treat young people should consider screening for unhealthy sleep patterns to help identify those who may be at risk for a number of health problems, including substance use, and intervene early and effectively if needed.
Linda Richter, PhD
Linda Richter is Director of Policy Research and Analysis